On Sunday, a Ryanair commercial aircraft was suddenly diverted and forced to land as it began its descent into Vilnius, Lithuania. The passengers, having been given no explanation from the pilot or crew, were left panicked and terrified as the plane changed course.
According to the BBC, flight “FR4978 was bound for Lithuania from Greece when it was forced to switch direction for the Belarusian capital Minsk on Sunday so the authorities there could arrest dissident journalist Roman Protasevich, 26.”
“The pilot announced the emergency diversion, but provided no details,” the BBC added, noting that the commercial plane was accompanied by a fighter jet.
“We all on the plane had panicked because we thought we were going to crash,” said one passenger, according to ABC News. “This was a sudden dive, changing the altitude very drastically. It was very violent. I’ve never felt this on an airplane. Everybody was in shock.”
The Wall Street Journal reported on Monday that, according to the chief executive of Ryanair Holdings PLC, the European budget airline “believes members of Belarus’ secret service were aboard one of its airliners when the plane was forced by a Belarus jet fighter to divert to the country’s capital of Minsk.”
Michael O’Leary, CEO of Ryanair, described the event as “a case of state-sponsored hijacking.”
According to The Wall Street Journal, Alexander Lukashenko, the Belarusian president, ordered the fighter to be scrambled. “Authorities there then arrested a prominent journalist and opposition activist, before allowing the plane to continue its journey,” the Journal reported. “The incident has sparked an international outcry and raised questions over the legality of the plane’s grounding and the ramifications for the airline industry.”
Speaking with Irish “Newstalk” radio, O’Leary said, “[I]t appears the intent of the authorities was to remove a journalist and his traveling companion.”
“We believe there were some KGB agents offloaded at the airport as well,” he added, referring specifically to the Belarusian secret service.
“That certainly would suggest that a number of other people who left the plane were secret service,” said Ireland’s foreign minister, Simon Coveney. “We don’t know from what country, but clearly linked to the Belarusian regime.”
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki described the event as “shocking” and that the U.S. was working with European allies on further plans and actions.
“Diverting a flight between two EU member states for the apparent purpose of arresting a journalist constitutes a brazen affront to international peace and security by the [Lukashenko] regime,” Psaki said during a briefing. “We demand an immediate international, transparent and credible investigation of this incident.”
The United Kingdom’s foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, described the Belarusian actions as a “reckless and dangerous” breach of international law. France warned that flights by Belavia, the Belarusian carrier, could be banned from European Union airspace, while Russia described the Western reaction as “shocking” and “hypocritical.”